Thanks to increased screening and improved treatments, fewer and fewer people die from breast cancer. But as much as 90% of the deaths still caused by the disease are the result of metastastis, the spread of the breast cancer to other organs. In patients with metastatic breast cancer, the survival rate is only 22%.
Current treatments of breast cancer metastases are often based on the genetic background of the primary tumour in the breast. This background determines how the tumour cells use carbs, fats, and proteins to grow. However, these treatments often fail. The study by Professor Sarah-Maria Fendt from KU Leuven and VIB may very well change that.
“Two metabolic mechanisms enable tumours to grow,” explains Professor Fendt. “We discovered that, unlike the primary breast tumour, the cancer cells in secondary lung tumour tend to use one specific mechanism. This is a response to subtle changes in the lungs – the environment of the tumour – that override the influence of cancer-specific genes.”
Some cancer therapies specifically target the metabolism of tumour cells, but this study implies that cancer metastases require other treatments than the primary cancers. “In the long run, our findings may help patients with advanced breast cancer. But first, we have to find out which other metabolic processes are influenced by the tumour environment. We will also examine the role of the environment at the time the cancer starts to spread. One step at a time, this will help us shed light on all aspects of tumour growth – crucial information for the development of more precise and effective anti-cancer therapies.”